Making Good Boys Better

by Tim O'Keefe

Stephanie Kassels ‘97 works to bring up the next generation of boys as co-director of Camp Belknap in New Hampshire.

Nestled in the pine forests along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Camp Belknap looks like a place right out of a movie. 

It’s the quintessential New England summer camp. Green cabins with wooden bunks and slamming screen doors. Winding wooded paths lead to a ballfield or the lake. A crowded mess hall with hundreds of boisterous boys scarfing down lunch. A lakefront chock full of canoes and sailboats. Copious outdoor activities. And deep, soulful traditions.

For co-director Stephanie Kassels ‘97, Camp Belknap provides transformative experiences for hundreds of boys each summer. They come from all over the country and many come back year after year after year. Hundreds of tiny white wooden plaques cover the walls of the Conlon Lodge. Each has the name of a boy who has attended for five years or more.

Stephanie’s husband and co-director Seth was one of those boys who spent many summers at Camp Belknap. The couple met at Colorado College where Stephanie studied biology. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Colorado at Denver while Seth worked on a master’s degree at CU-Boulder. 

As a diabetic, Stephanie focused her attention and research on childhood diabetes. That led to working with the University of Colorado’s Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes for 10 years. Stephanie is now a Famly Nurse Practioner and Doctor of Nursing. She continues to practice with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. 

In 2013, the couple got the opportunity to become the 6th directors in the camp’s 120-year history. They jumped at the chance. At that time Seth had been traveling a ton with his work in the renewable energy field and they had two young sons. “When that call came, I reminded Seth, ‘After family, what’s most important to you?’” The answer: Camp Belknap.

Established in 1903, Camp Belknap serves boys ages 8-16. The 300 acres of fields and forests, two islands, and a half-mile of shoreline on Lake Winnipesaukee provide the setting for fun and life-changing summers. From the start, the camp’s goal was “to make good boys better.” To that end, the camp emphasizes the values of fortitude, truth, beauty, and love. It also has an extensive leadership development program that carries through the camp at all levels. In fact, many of the camp staff have been involved with Camp Belknap for decades, first as campers, and later as program directors.

Stephanie leverages her experience from nursing and Colorado Rocky Mountain School in the camp environment through caring connections, hard work, and embracing challenges for growth.

At CRMS Mark and Jeanne Clark were her Wilderness leaders. They understood her diabetes and made deep connections with Stephanie. “I learned a lot about myself through the challenges CRMS presented,” she says. “Mark and Jeanne cared about me as a person and helped me flourish.” For many alumni, those caring relationships are the single most important things they take away from their experience at CRMS. Stephanie is no exception. She reflects those caring qualities as she interacts with campers.

“Every day we gather as senior staff to discuss how campers are doing. Who needs some encouragement? Who’s falling through the cracks? Who can we celebrate? The staff really cares for these boys in incredible ways,” shares Stephanie. 

Studies show positive adult relationships with boys are vital for fostering healthy men. At Belknap, the boys have the opportunity to interact with mentors and peers in a unique way. “The boys are allowed to be themselves here. There are no distractions from technology or the opposite gender. Their friendships with other campers and their counselors really go deep.” With two boys of their own, the Kassels sees the effects of those interactions on her own kids as well. 

Belknap, like at CRMS, encourages hard work. Campers clean toilets, set tables, and work in the kitchen. They are responsible for keeping themselves and their cabin clean – every day. 

Stephanie faced adversity at CRMS and the Kassels encourage resilience at Belknap. On a rainy day in July, Seth announced at lunch that, “The WBLK forecast calls for … rain. But that won’t affect what we have planned for today.” And after lunch, the programs and adventures of the camp continued undaunted. 

For Stephanie that typifies life at CRMS and Camp Belknap. “Growth happens in the midst of challenge and when you are uncomfortable.”

The connections between CRMS and Belknap don’t stop there. Stephanie hired fellow CRMS grad Kayla Manzanares ‘96 to run the health center and staff. Kayla finished her second summer at the camp in 2023 and hopes to be back next summer.

For Stephanie and Seth, running a summer camp brings joy and challenges. Their work is important. More than ever boys need positive role models. They need time to develop relationships. They need long summer days. 

Adds Stephanie, “The magic of Belknap comes down to providing the boys the opportunity to unplug from technology, engage in choice programming, and feel part of something bigger than themselves.  Through these experiences the boys become truly grounded in the present, which in the end provides them with life skills they will certainly rely on in the future.”

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